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Eating disorders (young people)

Early experiences with food and eating

Eating disorders can develop at any age but for this section of the website we interviewed young people up to the age of 25. Eating disorders are most commonly diagnosed in teens. Of the young people we spoke to, some developed an eating disorder after leaving school, at the age of 18/19 but often problems started in the early to mid-teens, between the ages of 11 and 16. This happened around the same time as starting secondary school.

 

When Francesca moved to secondary school she felt lost in the crowd. Comments from other people...

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Age at interview: 21
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 16
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I guess it all started when I went to secondary school in the early years, I’d come from quite a small primary school where, you know, you were very well known individually, you know, you were recognised for your achievements, like I was really good at netball so, that was one of my specialities and then I was quite academic in the school.
 
And then I just think I went to secondary school and became very much in the crowd, like at the back , I think that’s probably one of the reasons I developed an eating disorder, like I think when I was thirteen or fourteen, those kind of years, I started to lose my puppy fat as I was going through puberty and my body changed, and people recognised and noticed and commented on it, which I think was the first time since going to secondary school I’d actually felt like I was recognised, for being something or doing something whereas, I don’t know, I just really shadowed into the background I guess. And then it seemed to spiral into an eating disorder before I knew it like, I didn’t intentionally set out to lose any more weight but I think that recognition and that bit being noticed sort of obviously sparked something in me and made me feel that I could be good at something. So, I guess I developed anorexia without understanding or knowing what was going on and over the next couple of years, friends noticed.
 

Some of the people we spoke with had very early memories of problems with food, eating and moods and felt they had always had a complicated relationship with food. Some had strong memories of being as young as 8 or 9 when the problems started. Remembering a holiday when she was 8 or younger, Elene said “I remember making myself sick”. 

Those we talked with felt that a number of things could have contributed to them developing eating disorders: puberty and growing up, life events, family relationships, death of a loved one, illness, changing schools, bullying and anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. It wasn’t always clear or important for young people why they developed an eating disorder.

Childhood and family

Difficult relationships with food and eating are often thought to be linked with childhood experiences and family relationships. The people we spoke to who had had troubled childhoods described experiences such as parents divorcing, domestic violence, and mental and physical illness in the family. These experiences were felt to have contributed to their later problems with food. Some had experienced bereavement; losing grandparents or even a parent or a sibling which had a big impact on their lives. 

 

Fiona-Grace says she was a fussy eater and an anxious child. Her mum died when she was 10 and her...

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Age at interview: 22
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 14
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I was very anxious as a child and never wanted to do anything wrong and then I wanted to be the best at everything and I was always like very, very fussy about food and there would be times if I was upset about something that I would just wouldn’t eat and it was brought to the school teacher’s attention at one point but it just went through phases. I wasn’t at that age, I think it was when I was about seven or eight, I wasn’t focused about on calories you know, I didn't know about calories really. 
 
I wasn’t aware of you know, the fat content of food but then my dad had a heart attack I think when I was eight and he was never overweight. None of my family are overweight or have been but he just, he had very high cholesterol because he could eat whatever he wanted and he didn't gain any weight so there were no warning signs and he was very active so after that the whole family’s diet changed and I was taught how to read food labels in the supermarket and I was told you know if it has this much saturated fat in it, it can’t go in the trolley. So I was taught kind of “these are good foods”, “these are bad foods” so that at that point I was very aware but it didn't go as far as for me to deny myself things but they just weren’t in the house, those things. 
 
And then when I was, I can’t remember how old I was, but one of my brother’s has Crohn’s disease so he was diagnosed with that and again there is more focus on food and diet. And all of my family are very into fitness, you know a lot of them work in the fitness industry so they are all very pro exercise so I have been as well. And then when I was ten, my mum died so, I, it was quite a shock to me but not to the rest of the family because I wasn’t told that she had cancer until the day before she died. So I think that’s had a lot to do with my problems. And my siblings are all much older than me so I didn't have, you know, siblings my own age around to talk to about it so I didn't really have anyone to talk to so.
 
 

Steph says her home life was always great and she had supportive parents. Everything changed when...

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Age at interview: 23
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 14
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Home life has always been great. I had a brilliant upbringing, you know, I, it was just the worse thing in the world that my sister died. You know, she was only nineteen and it changed everything, but my Mum and Dad never did anything wrong to make me like this, and I think a lot of people look at your home life and think, “Oh something must have been wrong in that for you to end up like this,” but there was nothing. My Mum and Dad couldn’t have been any better, and my Mum especially because I was so attached to her, she was there through it all of my illness and she nursed me through my illness.

People whose family members also had an eating disorder wondered whether it could be inherited. 

 
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Chloe's aunt had anorexia nervosa which made her always conscious of not wanting to develop an...

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Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
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I never meant to have an eating disorder [laughs] never because my mum, I’ve always known about my auntie when she was younger. So I’d always been like, “Well, whatever happens I’m going to try and keep control of that. I do not want to go down that way.” ‘Cos I’ve heard about it all and it’s horrible and so if there was something that I couldn’t control, once you start doing a lot of things that became easier and easier to fall into habits and I don’t really know what I could say caused it. I think there’d be lots of different factors in it like maybe there is some sort of genetic thing. I don’t know. I’ve not really looked into it.

Some young people said their childhoods had been very happy and stable and that they’d always had good relationships with their parents. They didn’t think there was a family link to them developing an eating disorder.

Descriptions of childhood attitudes to food varied across the people we spoke to. Many said they’d had a very positive attitude to food; they used to enjoy eating and were unaware of any weight concerns. Some said they used to be “fussy” or “picky” but a few had deeper problems; avoiding certain foods or particular textures, not wanting different foods touching on their plate and generally “being funny” about food. These problems were often linked to people making emotional connections to eating and food eating more or less when upset, for example. 

 

Jamie had a problematic relationship to food since he was weaned as a baby. Later he would refuse...

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Age at interview: 19
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 14
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Well I’ve sort of had issues with eating ever since I was weaned as a child. Like my Mum weaned me and tried to get me on normal food and I just weren’t having any of that, I just didn’t want it.
 
I was just like, “No I don’t want that.” And my doctor turned round and said that my Mum was to put food in front of me, if I didn’t eat it was taken away but I wasn’t given anything else. And my Mum went two weeks and I didn’t have anything, and I just did not want it. And my Mum gave in in the end, she was like, “I’m not having my child starve.” 
 
And it wasn’t, I wouldn’t say it was like an eating disorder or something then; it was just like I’ve just always been fussy with food. It was mostly textures like I never used to like chewing things, if I had to chew it too much I didn’t like it. I always liked that soft things to eat, so if my Mum gave me something to chew it was like, “No. Don’t like it.”
 
But it was never, and I was always just like I’d say like a fussy eater like, I’d like different things. I didn’t like certain foods. It was never, it was never really associated with like weight or anything like that. It was just like I just didn’t like the food. 
 
 

Fiona-Grace had an emotional relationship to food; when she was upset she would refuse food....

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Age at interview: 22
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 14
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When I was upset I would just, I would refuse a lot of food I just didn't care about food when I was upset. I would go to school and refuse to eat school lunch because it was easier to get away with it at school than at home. ‘Cos they wouldn’t sit you down for hours and try and make you eat it. And then at home there would be a lot of times where I would just have to sit at the table for hours and hours and I would just play with my food, just chop it up into tiny pieces and move it around the plate and not eat it and then my parents would get incredibly frustrated with me and angry but that didn't really make it any easier.

Often young people’s attitudes were linked to their family’s approach to food. Some people said that they’d been aware of healthy eating, diets and weight from a young age because they had diet and health conscious families. Some felt there had been a focus on their weight since they were a child, either because they were told they were overweight or because of a parent's eating disorder. Sometimes passing comments or jibes about weight would stick to their minds for a long time. 

 

Katherine became aware of calories when her parents tried to help her lose weight.

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Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 11
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I didn’t really understand about calories at the age of kind of 11 or 12. So it was really just that was the connection. I knew that when my parents beforehand had tried to kind of help me kind of lower my weight in a safe healthy way, and had kind of given me, for instance like lower fat versions of crisps and things like that. So it must have been just that was all I knew, that I made the connection between okay well losing weight must be equalled with kind of you know reducing the fat in your diet. So I kind of went about it in that way.

 

Nikki felt like the “big one” in her family. She didn’t like her family using pet names referring...

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Age at interview: 20
Sex: Female
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I was always a big girl; up until I was about kind of 7, 8 I was fine. In size wise I was normal. And then I was putting on the weight and every kind of healthy eating kind of effort that I put into it, I would always, you know I was a good swimmer, I had all my exercise and I was very active, but I kept the weight on. I was always out of my siblings I was always the big one. Out of my like extended family I was the big one. Pet names would be like “fatty,” if it translates from like, but it was a kind of term of endearment thing, but it did stick with me.
 
I think as well like the culture, it’s not like, if I said to my Mum or someone, you know, “Don’t call me this, this bothers me.” It’s like, “Well no we love you, and it’s done you know.” And it wasn’t, there wasn’t ever a view to kind of looking after that I guess. Just from the cultural side of it.
 
 

Anna was one of four sisters. She felt like the “podgy” one and described having a difficult...

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Age at interview: 25
Sex: Female
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So now I’m 25 but probably… I would say I’ve been kind of having difficulty with eating for most of my life since I was quite young, maybe nine or ten.
 
I’ve got three sisters so one of four girls and we did lots of girly things, ballet lessons and that kind of thing, I think I was always aware that I was the podgy one and, and so probably at eight or nine would start thought, “I know I’ll be, I’ll be thin”. And then was also, always, always quite aware of having to do something for, for other people and, and, neglect yourself. And, and so I’d spend a lot of time raising money for charity and not eating anything [laughs].
 
It all seems quite silly now but my dad’s a GP so he, after a while when I lost a lot of weight quickly at that, that kind of age they took me to hospital and blah blah blah. And I think that was quite a trauma because the whole difficulty of eating so much comes from the people around you and how you relate with your family, how they relate with you, so having them, it felt like them dragging me to the doctors and it, getting me weighed and like anything could be really forceful sometimes. So I think that, that was quite, they were obviously concerned for medical reasons and I had to go to hospital and that kind of thing. But that to me felt like a real invasion [laughs] and I think also you feel like you’re doing something wrong when your parents kind of try to change your behaviour in that way.
 

Some of the focus on weight and dieting came from parents, brothers or sisters. Annabelle thought that being in control of food was a sign of ‘success’ and says she learnt this from her health conscious dad. Those who had grown up with older brothers and sisters said they were surrounded by talk about weight, appearance and dieting. Some people described irregular and chaotic mealtimes at home, which caused them to take charge of cooking or feeding themselves from a young age. Suzanne described how she “grew up with an abnormal relationship to food”; she didn’t have regular mealtimes at home and learnt to feed herself on snacks.

It’s important to keep in mind that eating disorders are complex mental health problems; they’re not simply about food, eating and weight. In fact, many said the first time they became aware of their own weight or BMI (Body Mass Index), or even made the connection between food intake and weight loss, was when they first saw a doctor.

School

Life changes such as moving schools or homes, or even countries, were often linked to the start of problems. For many, the move from primary school, to a bigger secondary school was when they felt their problems started. In particular the change from a familiar environment and strong friendship circles to a more crowded and often high-pressure secondary school environment. School work, especially exams, added to the stress and competition. 

For some, the increased freedom and lack of structure in secondary school or college was hard. Lauren felt that moving away from home and having more freedom played a big part in her developing an eating disorder. People talked about being teased or bullied and how it had contributed to them developing an eating disorder.

 

Extended bullying over years was a major factor in triggering Sam’s bulimia.

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Age at interview: 25
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 16
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So of course a lot of that over time sort of built up and it’s the bullying, like a lot of bullying if often spreads, it’s like a disease. You know once one bully you know gets away with it time and time again other people join in, and before you know you’re getting ganged up on. You know and that was the secret of the school yard, it could be even in lessons, you know if the teacher couldn’t quite control the class. So for about two years, years 7 & 8 it was just constant teasing and you know I probably just about coped with it, and then in Year 9 I think that was when everyone’s hormones sort of seemed to kick in, because it seemed to, you know become more intense. The bullying was more it became almost more violent. 
 
Of course as the bullying continued, the bullying became more frequent, you know, I’d not just binge and purge at school but also at home, when I got home particularly, you know there was a sort of window period between me getting home, my mother getting home with my brother and sister. So I used to just binge and purge frantically in that period which really just became every day really.
 

Puberty, body and self

Going through puberty and the bodily changes made some people feel uncomfortable. Some became anxious if they put on weight as they were growing up. For many girls, the thought of starting periods was a major concern. Suzanne had body issues since she was 12 and Maria said she “didn’t want to grow up”. Many felt that the teenage years were a confusing time when problems were more likely to develop.

 
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Maria thinks eating disorders often develop in teenage years because it's a time when people can...

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Age at interview: 18
Sex: Female
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I’m not quite sure if like experts would say this, but I think a lot of it is kind of bad fortune and timing in that bad things might happen at a time when you’re feeling quite vulnerable. And they come to, collide together. I suppose that’s why so few, few people have it because it’s a matter of bad things colliding at the wrong time. That’s why it’s normally only teenagers because they’re quite hard years, aren’t they?
 
So a lot of it’s that, so if it does happen to someone then it’s not, it’s not necessarily their fault. It’s not something they’ve done wrong; it is just a matter of these things coming together at the wrong time. So it’s so unfortunate. And it’s really sad, but it can, it’s okay, you can get better.
 
 
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As a teenager, Maria had many bad experiences which made her not want to grow up. She felt that...

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Age at interview: 18
Sex: Female
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And then when I get to obviously a teenager and you start to grow and change, so I noticed, I probably over noticed that I was starting to grow and change and get bigger still so, very slim but not, you know you grow obviously, and I think that was just a reflection of how I was at the time, but everything was changing because really at that age you overreact to everything. And it was, it’s exam pressure and friends changing and everything in life and people, everyone I love are dying, and, so sort of turbulent times. And I guess that was sort of reflected in the way that I was changing physically. And I thought “Well if this is what growing up is, then I, I don’t want to change, I want to stay the same.” And so I guess I took that as a reflection through, “Okay well I’ll keep my body the same,” and obviously all very unconscious, but I’ll keep myself as the innocent little child like I am, because it’s so much nicer back there. 

Elizabeth felt the opposite; she started dieting as she felt it would make her more like older women; 

“I thought it would be great to kind of be a grown up and do what women do which is diet.” Elizabeth

A lot of people said they had been sensitive, anxious and perfectionist as children; they had tried hard not to step out of line or upset others. Francesca took on a lot of responsibilities at home looking after her younger siblings; “well I’ll just make Mum and Dad’s life easier, that’ll be my job.” Many said that, as children, they worried a lot; a few had had obsessions and experienced depression and low mood. 

Common experiences that people shared included feeling insecure and ’not good enough’. . Some said they felt “different” to others their age; they struggled to “fit in” and didn’t have many friends. Eva made a New Year’s resolution to change herself, including her weight and the way she looked, to be more popular. For Elene, bulimia started by wanting to lose weight to be more attractive to boys. Difficult relationships could also contribute to an eating disorder. Lauren said being in a ‘controlling’ relationship played a role in her developing anorexia nervosa.

 

Rob felt increasingly different in a school environment that wasn’t accepting or open. He...

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Age at interview: 17
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 14
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I was naturally quite quiet, not really that competitive or like into kind of, I don’t know, not that bothered about kind of keeping up appearances, so to speak, with in that kind of environment and it was very, very competitive kind, there’s a lot of, it, well, there’s a lot of kind of macho behaviour from the boys, lots of kind of put downs and fights and so on and so forth. It was that kind of kind of environment of it wasn’t very accepting or open I don’t think. 
 
I think around that time, I guess people meant, you know, personalities developed in different stages and I found myself increasingly, even though it had always been slightly a factor, but I found myself increasingly feeling different to my peers. Very, very much like alternative outlook and priorities and I didn’t you I found a lot of the things going on almost, and I don’t mean this in like a snobbish kinds of way, but it seemed quite trivial, you know. It didn’t really seem to just kind of schoolyard politics. It just it seemed kind of pointless and I found it very difficult to kind of to get involved with that and so I tended to isolate myself more and more. I think I kind of began to sort of self harm more than I had as a kind of a coping mechanism to try and, because of all this guilt that I had and because I always had fairly low self-esteem. To it was a way of kind of dealing with that.
 
 

Elizabeth felt more grown up than others of her age and 'like an outsider'.

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Age at interview: 20
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 12
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I was always kind of living in a dream world when I was a kid. I was very much a kind of, wanted to live like my life like I read in stories. And pretended I was living a narrative kind of thing and my life was a little story that I made up for myself. And I guess I was quite precocious, as a child so that made me feel like kind of a bit of an outsider from that age. I never really liked doing the same kind of things as my peers at all ages.
 
I never really liked watching, I didn’t enjoy watching cartoons, and I played with Barbies earlier on and for not quite as long as all the other kids. But like quickly I grew out of kind of children’s things. And decided I wanted to be an adult and so I always got very frustrated when people were like, “No, you’re only, you’re only a child Elizabeth.” And you’re only sort of 9, 8 or 9 and whereas in my head I was 20. And I was this glamorous young woman, and I was actually only 7 or 8. And so that made me feel like a bit like I knew I wasn’t the same as a lot of other children. 
 
But then I kind of didn’t like myself for thinking, I didn’t think I was special, but there was something in me that kind of told me I thought I was special. So I kind of hated myself for that, being like, not, “You’re not, you’re no better than anyone else. You’re not special. You’re not, you’re not at all, you’re just a person.” I think the gap between myself and my peers was very, very much in evidence in my teenage years. Like when my peers were 11 they would, there were just sort of like I don’t’ know, lazing around watching cartoons and things like that, and playing with dolls even then, I’d much grown out of that by then. What did I enjoy doing? I was into like heavy metal music and I was, and I think that was my sister’s influence.
 
 

Nico’s problems began around the time he met his current boyfriend. He felt insecure and that he...

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Age at interview: 17
Sex: Male
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The eating disorder started shortly after I had come out of the inpatients’ unit. I met my current boyfriend and I won’t say I felt insecure about, well yeah it was very, I was very insecure about myself because I’ve not been around kind of the general public if you like for quite a long time. So I had to wean myself back into it, like for example if I ever had a panic attack in the supermarket I’d have to know where to go, go to the toilet, go to the disabled toilet, chill out in there for five minutes. I’d have to have an action plan.
 
So when I met my current boyfriend it was like, I didn’t feel like I was perfect. I didn’t feel like, I was even good enough in the slightest, I felt like this person was way out of my league so why was this person paying any interest in me? Has this person got like ulterior motives? Has this person kind of going to try and hurt me or something? What’s wrong here? Something isn’t right.
 
And it was the fact that, for this person to like me I got into my head that I needed to change for this person to like me, even though that was never said. I just felt like I needed to change, why would this person like me? Is the person going to try and hurt me? And then I was like, “Right I’ll change. I can take control of myself. I can change. I can take control of myself by doing the one thing that I know how to, and the only thing that will make me happy.” I was thinking, “Well I can be happy and I can change at the same time. And I can do that by not eating and by not eating I’ll lose weight. And by losing weight I’ll be happy.” And I was like, “Right, this seems to be perfect. This seems to kind of, like it’ll work.” And then I didn’t tell my boyfriend at the time what I was doing. He just found out because, I don’t know how he found out. I think, I think I told him but I can’t remember how I told him.
 

Unexpected events and illness

The start of eating disorders could also be linked to a particular traumatic event, such as a sexual assault. For some, the eating disorder was triggered by a physical illness, a stomach virus, or food poisoning, during which they very quickly lost a lot of weight. 

It was never possible to know exactly why an eating disorder started. Over time, it was possible for young people to feel that they began to understand the causes and original triggers of their eating disorder; sometimes counselling helped with this process. 

Last reviewed October 2018.
Last updated July 2015.
 

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